Court Rejects Lawsuit From Deputy Shot By Reserve

On April 5, 2016, Casey Huepenbecker and Marcus Newell were receiving firearms training at a range operated by the City of Napoleon, Ohio. During a break, Huepenbecker asked for, and received, permission to clean his weapon. Shortly after cleaning the gun, he set it on a picnic table near where other trainees were relaxing. It fired and the bullet hit Newell in the back. The shot damaged his liver, cracked a vertebra, and caused the loss of his spleen.

Approximately a year before the shooting, Huepenbecker had been appointed and sworn in as a special deputy by Henry County Sheriff Michael Bodenbender. Special deputies are required to complete the Ohio Peace Officer Training Academy (OPOTA) firearms course before they can be authorized to carry a weapon or perform duties outside the presence of a fully certified deputy.

At the time of the accident, Huepenbecker was attending the police academy at Northwest State Community College to obtain his OPOTA certification. The County did not pay him for the time spent taking the course nor did it reimburse him for tuition. In Henry County, special deputies receive compensation and assignments from the County Sheriff’s Auxiliary, a non-governmental organization, rather than from the Sheriff’s Department. Newell was likewise enrolled in the program. The shooting occurred during one of the course sessions.

Newell filed a civil rights suit in federal court naming Huepenbecker, Henry County, its Commissioners, and the City of Napoleon as defendants. A federal court of appeals rejected Newell’s lawsuit.

The Court found that “liability arises under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 only if the defendant violated the plaintiff’s federal rights while acting under color of state law. Acting under color of state law requires that the defendants have exercised the power possessed by virtue of state law and made possible only because the wrongdoer is clothed with the authority of state law.

“Under this standard, Huepenbecker clearly did not shoot Newell under color of state law. He did not injure Newell by abusing power he possessed as a volunteer sheriff’s deputy, and he neither acted in an official capacity nor exercised official authority. The law-enforcement course was open to the public; the County did not authorize Huepenbecker to carry a gun; and the gun he used was not County-issued.

“Virtually anyone, County volunteer or not, could have discharged the bullet that struck Newell. Huepenbecker’s actions were functionally equivalent to those of any private citizen. Newell emphasizes that the County required Huepenbecker to complete the course. This requirement, however, is insufficient to justify a finding that Huepenbecker acted under color of state law.

“Huepenbecker’s status as a government official played no role whatsoever in the events giving rise to the lawsuit. He had enrolled in the firearms course as a private citizen and was advancing his own interests at his own expense when the unfortunate accident occurred. For all of these reasons, we hold that Huepenbecker did not act under color of state law and is therefore entitled to summary judgment on the § 1983 claim lodged against him.”

Newell v. Huepenbecker, 2020 WL 2843596 (6th Cir. 2020).